- Enchantment: On Charisma and the Sublime in the Arts of the West by C. Stephen Jaeger
Marcel Reich-Ranicki would have liked this book. Stephen Jaeger’s latest study on enchantment is not only intellectually engaging; anybody who has ever felt shivers of goose bumps caused by watching paintings, listening to music, or watching movies knows what Stephen Jaeger’s book is about.
Jaeger defines enchantment as “the effect of charisma . . . , engaging the whole range of meaning of that word from a shallow moment of pleasure (‘Enchanted to make your acquaintance’) to a spellbound state of participation and imitation, to idolatry and transformation” (9). About a charismatic effect one can say that “it uncouples the critical sense, overrides judgment, as it lessens individual will,” “it enlarges the person who possesses it,” and “it inspires imitation, awakens the urge to be like the charismatic person” (22–23). The main goal of charisma is for Jaeger redemption, meaning “the rescue, in a critical moment, of life, freedom, and human dignity from a condition that ignores or suppresses or denies it” (18).
In a chapter discussing the redemption narrative, Jaeger claims that there exists a “continuous urgent demand for a source of redemption and transformation,” and that art and literature are in a position to cater to this demand (47). Another important term in this study is epiphany: “Epiphany gives the person who observes it the sensation of the limits of common humanity overcome, of the real existence and sudden embodiment of a spiritual world” (37). Moreover, Jaeger sees imitation as fundamental for enchantment (123). And finally, charisma and aura are related (91). Defining aura is difficult; perhaps sometimes it could defined as the opposite of charisma: “Charisma is unthinkable and nonexistent without a human presence to radiate it to an observer; aura fastens on any number and kind of objects” (93). [End Page 174]
Jaeger’s analysis of John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew (1893) reveals what his aims are in the chapter “Charisma and Art”: “this work of art . . . weakens the distinction between life and art and blurs the border between illusion and reality” (35). Jaeger sees as a “distinctive element of charismatic art . . . a human ‘presence’ in the artwork greater than that of the viewer” (36). Important for every teacher and a solid argument against teaching by webcam, Jaeger points to Socrates as an example and stresses: “It was the charisma of personal presence . . . that made him the teacher he was” (62). Jaeger also argues that Socrates’s sacrificial death created the desire for a surrogate physical presence: “This sealing and affirming effect of sacrificial bloodshed is a transference process related to charisma in art” (63).
As was to be expected, references to the Middle Ages are omnipresent in the book. The whole field of reliquaries that Jaeger describes is rather medieval. He argues that acts of courage and self-sacrifice “have a power to inspire and encourage imitation,” and that “that power is hardly diminished if the inspiring figure is purely fictional: the heroes of the Trojan War and the Aeneid in the ancient world, Roland, Tristan, and virtually every hero of medieval epic and romance” (40). Jaeger tries to explain the fascination of heroes with the help of the notion of enchantment: “Charismatic art is functioning when it makes the reader want to live in the higher world it depicts, to think and behave according to its laws” (42). But in medieval times, enchantment through romance was only granted the youth. A chapter especially interesting for medievalists is “Romance and Adventure” (162–84): “Courtly romance must be central to a study of charismatic literature, because its impact on the imagination of the West, its social values, and the political institutions of aristocratic society, is demonstrably so huge” (166). But the chivalrous culture as ‘charismatic culture’ never existed in reality; it is a literary construction, so there is a gap between historical facts and literary descriptions: “courtliness, courtly love, and chivalric ideals were learned...